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Narco, crime and protests: Ecuador looks back into the abyss

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The emboldened drug trafficker, hundreds of deaths in prisons and a government harassed by a scandal and by the discomfort of a population impoverished by the pandemic: Ecuador look back into the abyss of instability.

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Crime, largely linked to drugs and which leaves almost 1,900 deaths this year, claimed the life of athlete Álex Quiñónez, one of the best sprinters in the world, who was shot to death on Friday.

The clouds gather over this country of 17.7 million inhabitants, which had seven presidents between 1997 and 2005 and where this year the worst prison massacres in the history of Latin America occurred.

With five months in power, the conservative Guillermo Lasso also faces an investigation in Congress, where he does not have a majority, for the “Pandora Papers” that revealed how he allegedly hid assets in tax havens.

Drug trafficking

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Located between Colombia and Peru, the world’s leading cocaine producers, drug trafficking exploded under the noses of an Ecuador that was a haven of peace during the armed conflicts in its neighbors.

Lasso declared a state of exception for 60 days to take the military out to the streets in support of the police, without restricting civil liberties for the time being.

A war for drug revenues pits gangs at the service of Mexican and Colombian cartels.

“National sovereignty is threatened by drug trafficking,” said the president.

The homicide rate went from 7.8% per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020 to 10.6% between January and October 2021.

The nation “is among the corridors that lead to the countries with the highest drug consumption, such as the United States, through the Pacific basin, and Brazil, through the Amazon River basin,” said security expert Fernando. Carrión, from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso).

The drug traffickers have their eyes on Ecuador for its permeable borders, a dollarized economy, and major seaports for export.

A third of Colombian cocaine enters the country, where only “40% of what moves in terms of monetary flow is banked,” said Fredy Rivera, director of the URVIO Latin American Journal of Security Studies.

Drug seizures reached the annual record of 147 tons between January and October 2021 and experts consider that domestic consumption is around 100 tons.

Bloody jails

Cruel armed clashes between prisoners of gangs, linked to cartels such as the Mexicans of Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación, have left about 240 dead so far this year.

In September, 119 inmates of a Guayaquil prison died in one of the worst prison massacres in Latin America.

The penitentiaries are “criminal central commandos,” according to Rivera.

Lasso deployed military troops to prisons, with a capacity for 30,000 people and an overcrowding of 30%.

And the two main criminal organizations in Ecuador have some 20,000 members.

Ecuador lacks “a strong response to a bigger problem, which is the penetration of transnational organized crime,” noted Daniel Pontón, dean of the School of Security and Defense of the Institute for Higher National Studies (IAEN).

Tension and instability

Lasso, 65, also inflamed the spirits of indigenous people, workers and students by increasing fuels by up to 12% on Friday, bringing a gallon of diesel to US $ 1.90 against the dollar that it cost a year ago.

Those sectors will march this Tuesday in Quito to demand a freeze in previous prices after monthly increases since 2020.

“Instead of lowering tensions, this is causing tremendous annoyance, discontent among the workers and the people,” said union leader Ángel Sánchez.

In the protest will be the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie), which participated in riots that overthrew three leaders between 1997 and 2005, and which led the 2019 demonstrations against the elimination of fuel subsidies, with a balance of eleven deaths and that forced then-president Lenín Moreno (2017-2021) to back down.

If the government “decides to go for the coercive alternative, to impose itself, this conflict, these tensions will escalate and they will not reach a good port,” warned political scientist Karen Garzón Sherdeck, from SEK University.

The ex-banker, investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office and Congress for appearing in the “Pandora Papers”, governs with a Legislative Assembly dominated by the left, in which the bloc of former socialist president Rafael Correa (2007-2017, Lasso’s main opponent) is the main force with 49 of 137 seats.

The Executive believes that the intention of Parliament is to take the head of state to impeachment in order to dismiss him.

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